Sunday 23 August ~
David Beckham last night returned with LA Galaxy to RFK Stadium in Washington DC, the venue where he made his Major League Soccer debut just over two years ago in front of a sell-out crowd of almost 47,000. In 2008 when LA came to DC, that attendance dropped to just under 36,000. Last night’s crowd was slightly above 22,000. That’s still well ahead of DC United’s home average, but a fair reflection of the diminishing interest in the English celebrity.
It’s arguable that the only thing that has changed in MLS these past two years is the level of hullabaloo surrounding the LA number 23. Two years ago there was an auxiliary press box to deal with the overflow of journalists, and a packed, extended press conference afterwards that yielded all manner of inane but chummy answers. This year, after an uninspiring 0-0 draw on a wet, humid night, a dozen or so scruffy hacks were allowed to shuffle into the LA changing room and get close enough to Beckham to smell his self-branded aftershave.
His gift with words is not enough to convince you either way that he still believes in, or ever really did believe in, Project MLS. Did he think that the league had changed over the past two years? “We always said it would grow slowly, and it has done that,” he said. “Slowly it’s moving forward.” Did he think he’s made a difference to the US game? “I would like to think so, but only time will tell.” Hmm.
Beckham has given such bland answers so often that you can forgive a lack of passion in their delivery, while their lack of substance goes with the territory. Nonetheless, the way he speaks reflects the way he played. He didn’t play badly, but then he didn’t make a really telling contribution until the 90th minute with his first shot of the game, a 30-yard effort that skidded off the rain-soaked surface and was turned around the post by DC keeper Josh Wicks. If that had gone in, he could justifiably have claimed a match-winning performance. But his efforts in midfield for the previous hour and a half were anything but.
One tackle all night, a consequence perhaps of last weekend’s red card for a two-footed lunge against Seattle. He started off in central midfield, in the playmaker’s position, where he made no plays, but he did drift out to the right, where his nemesis Landon Donovan was also supposed to be playing, to whip in the odd cross. Both he and LA coach Bruce Arena were vague when questioned if this had been intentional. “It’s just about getting on the ball and supplying the forwards,” was the midfielder’s deep tactical summary of his role. In that role, he probably covered less ground than the fourth official, staying put when LA attacked, while rarely tracking back to help out the defence. Arena’s generous verdict: he’s a good two-way player.
Team-mates no longer constantly pass him the ball, as they did when he first arrived. And he no longer constantly seeks it. LA has made considerable improvements under Arena this season, and started to gel before Beckham’s return from AC Milan. It’s as though he’s been grandfathered in to the LA midfield, wandering around and receiving the ball occasionally out of charity to see if he can still deliver a 50-yard pass (he can, about 50 per cent of the time). But now that everyone knows he doesn’t really want to be here, you can’t help but look at him and wonder “What’s the point?” Shirt sales have slowed, fan numbers are decreasing year on year for his travelling show, and even the notoriously boisterous DC fans seem barely bothered to boo, although they held up a sign suggesting that Posh and Landon Donovan have swapped more than small talk by the pool.
At $6.5 million a year, it’s nice work if you can get it. It seems astonishing that a man of this pace and motivation seems repeatedly assured of a place on the England bench. How does he get away with it? When the player’s almost gone, you’re only left with the brand and the smell of its aftershave. That’s good for his secured future wealth, but not much use at a World Cup. Ian Plenderleith